South Africans are not xenophobic, but Poverty-Phobic!

2015-04-17 16:45

  South Africans are not xenophobic, but poverty-phobic! South Africans are not xenophobic; they are just competing with foreigners and poor masses for the very limited resources. The economic space where the majority of South Africans compete is very small in comparison to the broader mainstream economic spaces where the rich 10% exist or compete.

These respective spaces are still representative of the colonial and apartheid spaces. The spacial distribution or rather apartheid cities were structured for the minority few, not the masses, and even city planning across South Africa attests to this fact. The masses were relegated to the very small black social enclaves to live their black lives far away from the so called the civilisation of a white man.

Separationist policies were not just an economic project designed to privilege the minority few but also an attempt to control social encounters. It is said that in the context of social interactions social agents are bound to agree or disagree, and apartheid policy makers knew this very well. Therefore, parochial explanations of the current violence in South Africa are not helping anyone, and their very labeling as xenophobic coupled with uneducated responses might prove to be counterproductive as the struggle might not just be against individual groups but for survival. South Africans are not xenophobic!

South Africans are doing what they have done to other South Africans, and it’s what other Africans have done in their respective struggles for survival. Westerners have done the same to other Westerners. For example, the late 1980s in South Africa witnessed the wave of mass looting of shops owned by South Africans. It was a matter of what was accessible for exploitation and the venting out of the societal frustrations. During this period, black-on-black violence, which is under-researched, became the order of the day. Furthermore, the interesting thing about looting is that looters seem to be more interested in food; they take food and other valuables to obtain more food or drugs, which helps them to escape the reality of life.

In hindsight, the apartheid government knew very well that the influx of blacks into white spaces would create social problems because there would be more contact and undesirable social interactions with whites. This would also give rise to blacks’ exposure to the disparities between white and black lives. Moreover, the wave of democratisation during the post-World War II and Cold War period further advanced separationist theory or black-phobia through the misleading idea of separate development and racialised geographical locations under the auspices of apartheid policies. This was an attempt to protect white privilege and minimise the perceived detrimental racial encounters.

Furthermore, the negotiated sacrifice of Nelson Mandela’s government of national unity was the culmination of compromises, which promised to leave the economic privileges untouched. Obviously, the hope of the freedom fighters was that political freedom would pave the way to economic freedom.

In contrast, recent post-apartheid years have seen widening gaps between the rich and poor, an upsurge of gated communities designed to physically separate the rich from the poor, control racial encounters, and protect the privileged few from all the social problems. Even recreational spaces and other public spaces are representative of the different economic classes. Shopping malls, schools, and even hospitals are economically and racially skewed. The rich live and the poor are condemned to death by their inability to pay for fundamental human rights.

There are even exclusionary cities that are being created to enhance the protection of the rich from the poor and create an exclusive Western lifestyle in the face of social injustices. For example, one might argue that Steyn City is the representation of these exclusionary trends and the future of South Africa. Arguably, in these situations, the not-so-rich blacks and whites and the poor are left out of the social protections to compete for limited resources, hate each other, deal with the crimes of poverty, and die together while the rich blacks and whites enjoy their so-called capitalist blessings.

The future promises to be bleak and disastrous, but it can be avoided through the deployment of communitarian justice policies and meaningful private-public partnerships that seek to ameliorate the social reality of everyday people.

South Africans are not xenophobic; they are like any other human beings whose struggle is for survival. The struggle has always been for liberation, bread and butter, and a better life. The violence against the system of oppression was not an end itself but an undesirable means to a better life, and as long as that end is not achieved, the struggle continues, the shape of which is not yet confirmed. However, history does offer some clues into how the struggle might look in the years to come.

If I had enough space to write, I would chronicle in detail the different phases of the struggle for survival and unpack the series of events that have shaped our society — from wars of conquests to negotiations, peaceful protests to armed struggles, political freedom to economic freedom, individualism to communitarianism, greed to sharing, Western democracy to context-specific democracy, violations to the enjoyment of basic human rights, and from the fear of difference to embracing diversity.

South Africans are not xenophobic; these are natural progressions of the struggle to make ends meet. If the economic activities and the privileges thereof are not transformed to accommodate the cries of the poor, the time-ticking bomb will eventually explode. This would necessitate another TRC and the rebuilding of the nation from the ashes of the struggle for survival. Exclusionary cities and gated communities will not be spared from the wrath of injustice as the poor always find ways to penetrate the dividing walls of privilege in their struggle for survival.

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